By Anna Rawhiti-Connell*
Comment: Defined as someone who "is able to generate interest in something by posting about it on social media", the term "influencer" is relatively new and got entered into the Merriam-Webster dictionary only last year.
The idea of influence is not new and the efficacy of using social media influencers as we now know them, is grounded in some well-established thinking about human behaviour.
We can all influence those around us and we subconsciously seek the influence of others because we're social animals who want our decision-making endorsed by our peers.
Influence is also a slightly mysterious quality. By its very nature, it is subliminal and opaque. Many of us don't like to admit that we're being influenced and this makes us naturally sceptical. Given the power of today's influence industrial complex, it's probably healthy to listen to our inner sceptics.
One of the biggest boom areas for brands and influencers at the moment is the wellness industry. One of the healthiest reasons to be sceptical about how we're being influenced is the heady combination of this $4.5 trillion industry, which is largely predicated on pseudo-science, and the unmediated content feeds of social media influencers paid to spruik products.
In a tweet last year, Pope Francis called the Virgin Mary the first influencer, but if traditional religion isn't your cup of tea, may I offer you a turmeric collagen latte endorsed by this glowing woman and a side of spending your money on the life-long search for health and happiness?
Humans have been seeking remedies for what ails them for centuries. 'Wellness' is not a bad quest. We could probably all do with more veges, a bit more sleep and time out from our busy lives. But like influence, it's been commodified. As someone who works in digital marketing, I know there's a sizable audience available for online ads targeting called 'the worried well'.
Based on people's concern rather than evidence
The efficacy of what's being sold to you is based on very little empirical evidence and instead preys on your concerns. The wellness industry also places responsibility for your health squarely in your hands and often ignores systemic prejudice within health systems, inequality and poverty. It's also an industry designed to bombard and overwhelm you.
Enter the influencer. If the quest for wellness is a relatively natural human pursuit, and we're overwhelmed by the size of the industry peddling an unquantifiable number of remedies, self-selecting into social media feeds of wisdom from a few authentic influencers might seem like a natural and harmless pursuit too.
There's plenty to choose from in New Zealand with followings on Instagram in the hundreds of thousands. The regular content they post often falls into two categories - highly aspirational or highly relatable. We're susceptible to both. One fills the 'we're not good enough' hole in our souls and the other reassures us we are. The organic hummus from Brand X the influencer is casually serving just happens to do both jobs.
Something we opt into
Brands use influencers because of their ability to connect with audiences in a way that traditional advertising can't. We ignore ads. They're interruptive. Following influencers on social media on the other hand is something we've opted into. We control it.
It's a bit of a false paradigm though. We might control what we see but we don't control the industry driving the placement of wellness products into the hands of these seemingly innocent mini reality TV stars we've signed up to watch.
Unlike the 'traditional' media which offers clearer distinction between advertising and editorial content and has some controls in place to verify information, what we see from influencers is unmediated and unchecked. This can be dangerous.
The unmediated and 'direct to consumer' nature of influencer content can lead to scenarios where it's a hop, skip and a jump away from endorsing Covid-19 conspiracy theories. David Farrier did an excellent job discussing this in an interview with RNZ's Jesse Mulligan recently.
Listen to the interview here:
The Advertising Standards Authority in New Zealand requires any paid promotion from influencers on social media to be marked with #ad but the medium in which influencers operate frequently blends commercial imperative, advice and entertainment in an alluring way, which makes the unblurring of lines between paid promotion and unpaid content, difficult.
Our best defence against falling down unhealthy, expensive or dangerous rabbit holes online is to deploy our natural scepticism about being influenced. Recognise that the lives being portrayed online by influencers are often carefully curated. Their amazing hair is probably not the result of a daily turmeric collagen latte but daily blowouts at the salon.
In our constant search for that one shortcut that will solve all our problems, many of us seek out wellness advice and products and the influencers that represent the industry online. Just know that the industry is well aware of your concerns and insecurities and has worked out that it's far easier to make money selling pseudo-science through the ringing endorsement of pseudo-perfect people, than it is to sell broccoli.
If something looks too good to be true, it probably is. So buy the broccoli and take a walk instead. Put down your phone and go to bed.
*Anna Rawhiti-Connell is a digital, social media and content marketing consultant and commentator who writes about social media, digital news, politics, diversity and gender equality.